How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College?

Learn About the Relationship Between Science Preparation and College Admissions

Group of multi-ethnic students in chemistry lab
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When applying to college, you'll find that requirements for high school preparation in science vary greatly from school to school, but in general, the strongest applicants have taken biology, physics, and chemistry. As you might expect, institutions with a focus in science or engineering often require more science education than a typical liberal arts college, but even among top science and engineering schools, the required and recommended coursework can vary significantly.

What Science Courses Do Colleges Want to See?

Some colleges list the science courses that they expect students to have completed in high school; when stated, these courses usually include biology, chemistry, and/or physics. Even if a college doesn't specifically outline these requirements, it's probably a good idea to have taken at least, two, if not all three of these courses, as they provide a strong general foundation for college-level STEM classes. This is especially important for students hoping to pursue a degree in fields such as engineering or one of the natural sciences.

Note that earth science does not tend to be on the list of courses colleges hope to see. This doesn't mean it isn't a useful class, but if you have a choice between, for example, earth science or AP biology, opt for the latter.

Many colleges stipulate that high school science classes must have a laboratory component in order to fulfill their science requirements.

In general, standard or advanced biology, chemistry, and physics courses will include a lab, but if you've taken any non-lab science classes or electives at your school, make sure you're aware of the specific requirements of the colleges or universities you apply to in case your courses don't qualify.

The table below summarizes the required and recommended science preparation from a number of top American institutions. Be sure to check directly with colleges for the most recent requirements.

SchoolScience Requirement
Auburn University2 years required (1 biology and 1 physical science)
Carleton College1 year (lab science) required, 2 or more years recommended
Centre College2 years (lab science) recommended
Georgia Tech4 years required
Harvard University4 years recommended (physics, chemistry, biology, and one of those advanced are preferred)
MIT3 years required (physics, chemistry, and biology)
NYU3-4 years (lab science) recommended
Pomona College2 years required, 3 years recommended
Smith College3 years (lab science) required
Stanford University3 or more years (lab science) recommended
UCLA2 years required, 3 years recommended (from biology, chemistry or physics)
University of Illinois2 years (lab science) required, 4 years recommended
University of Michigan3 years required; 4 years required for engineering/nursing
Williams College3 years (lab science) recommended

Don't be fooled by the word "recommended" in a school's admissions guidelines. If a selective college "recommends" a course, it is most definitely in your best interest to follow the recommendation.

Your academic record, after all, is the most important part of your college application. The strongest applicants will have completed the recommended courses. Students who simply meet the minimum requirements will not stand out from the applicant pool.

What If Your High School Doesn't Offer the Recommended Courses?

It's extremely rare for a high school to not offer the basic courses in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics). That said, if a college recommends four years of science including courses at an advanced level, students from smaller schools may find the courses simply aren't available. 

If this describes your situation, don't panic. Keep in mind that colleges want to see that students have taken the most challenging courses available to them. If a certain course isn't offered by your school, a college shouldn't penalize you for not taking a course that doesn't exist.

That said, selective colleges also want to enroll students who are well prepared for college, so coming from a high school that doesn't offer challenging college preparatory classes can, in fact, be a detriment. The admissions office may recognize that you took the most challenging science courses offered at your school, but the student from another school who completed AP Chemistry and AP Biology may be the more attractive applicant because of that student's level of college preparation.

You do, however, have other options. If you're aiming for top-tier colleges but coming from a high school with limited academic offerings, talk to your guidance counselor about your goals and your concerns. If there is a community college within commuting distance of your home, you might be able to take college classes in the sciences. Doing so has the added benefit that the class credits might transfer to your future college.

If a community college isn't an option, look into online AP classes in the sciences or online science classes offered by accredited colleges and universities. Just be sure to read reviews before choosing an online option—some courses are much better than others. Also, keep in mind that online science courses are unlikely to fulfill the lab component that colleges often require. 

A Final Word about Science in High School

For any college or university, you will be in the best position if you have taken biology, chemistry, and physics. Even when a college requires just one or two years of science, your application will be stronger if you've taken courses in all three of those subject areas.

For the country's most selective colleges, biology, chemistry and physics represents the minimum requirement. The strongest applicants will have taken advanced courses in one or more of those subject areas. For example, a student might take biology in 10th grade and then AP biology in 11th or 12th grade. Advanced Placement and college classes in the sciences do an excellent job demonstrating your college readiness in science.

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Grove, Allen. "How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 1, 2018, thoughtco.com/science-needed-to-get-into-college-788862. Grove, Allen. (2018, February 1). How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/science-needed-to-get-into-college-788862 Grove, Allen. "How Much Science Do You Need to Get Into College?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/science-needed-to-get-into-college-788862 (accessed May 21, 2018).